Confidential Data and Public Records Access in Wisconsin

Confidential Data and Public Records Access in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Open Records Law is a public records and government data protection law that was enacted in 1982. The law sets forth the specific public records and government information that residents of the state are permitted to inspect, copy, and review. To this point, the Wisconsin Open Records Law also establishes the requirements that state and local government agencies within the state of Wisconsin must abide by as it relates to enabling residents of the state to access their public records. Moreover, the law also outlines the specific records and information that are exempt from the provisions of the law.

How are public records defined under the Wisconsin Open Records Law?

Under the Wisconsin Open Records Law, a record is defined as “any material on which written, drawn, printed, spoken, visual or electromagnetic or electronically generated or stored data is recorded or preserved, regardless of physical form or characteristics, that has been created, or is being kept by, an “authority” (defined below). The term record includes, “but is not limited to, handwritten, typed, or printed pages, maps, charts, photographs, films, recordings, tapes, optical disks, and any other medium on which electronically stored data is recorded or preserved.”3 A website maintained by a public official about government business is also a public record, and access cannot be restricted.4 Record also includes emails and other correspondence sent to an elective official.”

What are the requirements of records custodians under the law?

Records custodians within the state of Wisconsin have a wide range of responsibilities as it pertains to facilitating the ability of citizens to request access to public records under the sections of the Wisconsin Open Records Law. Such responsibilities include but are not limited to:

  • Records custodians are responsible for implementing, maintaining, and prominently posting a notice that describes the nature of its organization, the identity of the legal custodian, and the methods or procedures that Wisconsin citizens must adhere to when looking to access the public records and information of the custodian, among other pertinent information.
  • Records custodians must allow Wisconsin residents to access their public records and information during regular their organization’s regular office hours.
  • Records custodians have a duty to respond to a citizen’s request to access public records as soon as practicable and without delay. However, records custodians are permitted to delay their response to a request for access to public records under some circumstances, such as instances where a records custodian wishes to consult with their legal counsel prior to granting access to a particular record.
  • When looking to access public records, Wisconsin citizens have the right to request said access orally, in writing, or through physical mail. To this end, records custodians are prohibited from requiring a Wisconsin citizen to physically come into their organization or place of business to access, inspect, or copy a public record.
  • Records custodians are permitted to respond to a request to access audio recordings or files by providing the requestor with a copy of the file, permitting this copy is as substantially audible as the original file, or a transcript of the file.
  • Records custodians are prohibited from charging fees to requestors of public records that exceed the actual, necessary, and direct costs associated with reproducing, transcribing, mailing, or shipping said records to an individual.

Under what circumstances can a request to access public records be denied?

The Wisconsin Open Records Law lays out a variety of public records and government information that are exempt from being accessed, reproduced, or copied by members of the general public. Subsequently, some of the public records that are exempt from dissemination or disclosure under the law include:

  • Personal property return taxes.
  • Records containing information that has been collected or obtained in connection with a complaint, lawsuit, investigation, or any other circumstances that could result in an enforcement action.
  • Records that would identify a confidential informant.
  • Records that contain personally identifiable information such as credit card numbers, checking account numbers, and debit card numbers.
  • Records that could lead to the endangerment of an individual’s life or safety if there were to be disclosed to the general public.
  • Trade secrets relating to computer programs.
  • Record permitting to job applicants that must be kept confidential.
  • Records concerning employee evaluations.

What are the penalties for violating the law?

In terms of the penalties that state and government agencies face for violating the Wisconsin Open Records Law, the Wisconsin attorney general has the authority to impose sanctions against organizations within the state that fail to comply with the law. Most notably, state agencies that are found to be liable for violations of the law are subject to being ordered to pay $100 to $1,000 in damages to an aggrieved party, as well as actual costs and reasonable attorney fees. Moreover, the number of damages that a records custodian may be ordered to pay as a result of violating the law can be substantially higher than $1,000, in instances where an organization has been found to have acted in a willful and wanton manner.

While legislation that allows for residents of Wisconsin to access government records and information has been on the books since as early as 1917, the Wisconsin Open Records Law granted residents of the state public record accessibility rights in a more modern context. With this being said, the provisions of the law enable the everyday working citizen to request access to numerous public records, as many of the decisions that local governments within the state will make hinge upon their taxpayer dollars. In this way, Wisconsin residents have a legal means to hold their government accountable for their actions and spending.